Day 5 - Thursday
by: Emma Gillespie, Taylor Jeffrey, Jacob Pelissero, David Schouten
The fourth day of the Midwest tour was focused on corn production and its applications. This came as no surprise given that we are in one of the top five corn producing states. The first stop today was in York, Nebraska at the Pioneer facility. We were fortunate enough to visit the facility during harvest; the earliest harvest in twenty-five years. The tour that we experienced this year had all of the processes in progress except seed treatment and bagging. A short trip down the road brought us to the Abengoa Bioenergy ethanol plant. To begin our time at the plant we had a talk from Mitch Stuhr, Plant Operator and Thomas Tandy, Research and Development Coordinator. Together they explained to us how the operation works as well as addressed the economic and social implications of the ethanol industry. Following this talk we had a tour of the facility to see how the ethanol and its by-products are produced. It was interesting to witness both ends of the corn industry.
Crop Breeding and Biotechnology at Pioneer, York
Pioneer is the world's leader in hybrid research and seed corn production. Of their many sites the Nebraska facility is the companies largest. This facility has five dryers on site, each with a capacity ranging from 1200 to 1500 bushels. This Pioneer plant has a capacity of 27 000 harvested acres (36 000 planted) of seed corn. The facility supplies 105 to 118 day corn primarily to the Midwest states from Nebraska to Texas.
Joe Mormon began the talk discussing the process of growing seed corn and the unique challenges they face. Following this, the discussion shifted to a question-answer forum. The majority of this time was spent discussing traits for biological and environmental resistance. The discussion was focused on extending the longevity of pest resistance traits that are currently in practice. One of the processes is "Refuge in a Bag". Several years ago it was mandated that twenty percent of planted acres be susceptible to pests. Research has shown that Refuge is more effective when susceptible plants are randomly distributed in the planted acres at 5 to 10%; depending on the variety.
We then split into groups and went on tours of the facility. We toured each of the processes of the plant; from inbound seed corn to out bound treated seed (please refer to Figure 1 for the entire process). Harvesters run continually for forty days delivering corn to the facility, with 100 to 150 walking floor trucks delivering corn daily. At drop off, moisture levels are measured and the corn is moved from the truck through to the sorting facility. This building has fifty-seven employees evaluating and removing damaged and compromised cobs. The full corncobs are then transferred to the drying facility, a two-pass system that aims for a target moisture of 12.5% to 13%. This process usually takes about four hours per one percentage point; a single batch can take up to 100 hours. Once the drying process is complete shelling and sizing begins. Here the corn is taken off the cob and sorted by size and colour. A kernel count is established prior to seed treatment to determine the precise rate for the various seed treatments. From here the kernels are treated and packaged into bags and grow boxes.
Leroy Svec, Research Manager; gave us a talk on current research at Pioneer. We discussed their new Aquamax hybrids, a drought resistance corn that claims to provide 5% better yield under low moisture environments and 3% better yield under normal conditions. We also discussed their new stronger stalk hybrids designed for the Midwest United States where high winds are a major risk in their crop production.
The other major topic that Leroy addressed was Pioneer's goals for increasing corn yield. The highest recorded yield on a field scale last year was just above 400 bushels per acre. This led to a discussion on the maximum potential of corn, if grown stress free in a perfect season. Leroy firmly believed this to be 700 bushels per acre. Given that the average yield of corn in Ontario is roughly 161 bushels per acre, this was shucking to hear.
After fueling up with some lunch we headed down the street to the Abengoa bioenergy plant. Abengoa is an international company, founded in Spain, with offices in seventy countries and 22 000 employees. The plant in Nebraska is capable of producing 55 million gallons of first generation ethanol. Ethanol production is a seventy-hour process, from input receiving to output delivery. In addition to ethanol the by-products of the production process include: wet distiller's grain (WDGs), dry distiller's grains (DDGs), compressed CO2, and corn oil.
Our time at the plant again started off with an informal question and answer discussion with the plant manager, Mitch Stuhr, and Thomas Tandy the Research and Development Director. Abengoa is a very environmentally conscious organization, and while they have identified shortcomings in their environmental program they are very open about these issues and how they are addressing them. The company as a whole has a policy to track their environmental impact. This includes monitoring how much gasoline employees are using all the way to ensuring that they are using the supplier with the lowest ecological footprint, including office supplies.
The Nebraska facility is what Mitch and Thomas referred to as a first-generation ethanol plant. This means that they are able to create ethanol, using starch. Second-generation facilities are able to create ethanol, using cellulose as the input material. Abengoa is in the process of developing a new cellulose plant that is set to open in Kansas in 2014. Abengoa certainly is looking towards the future. When asked about the future of the technology Mitch felt that in the next two years ethanol plants would begin to produce butanol. Butanol is also an alcohol that can be burned as fuel, though it has some considerable advantages over ethanol. Butanol has a higher energy density then ethanol with the major advantage being that it can be created in current ethanol plants and can use the current gasoline infrastructure for distribution.
We ended the day with a tour of the plant. The size of the operation was staggering, including a 1 million gallon tank on site and over 300 000 bushels of storage. We also were able to see the two main by-products of the production WDGs and DDGs. These are used in the ration of feedlot cattle and in the dairy industry. Currently WDGs is selling for $105 a ton and DDGs for three times as much. The reason for this is the increased protein percentage in the feed due to its processing.
Overall, these two stops certainly were very interesting. With corn production steadily on the rise and a new applications for its use, the future is very bright. In the future will we see research collaboration between corn breeders and corn users? Will Pioneer focus on stover production for second-generation ethanol production or corn hybrids specifically selected for input into ethanol, and potentially butanol facilities?
Only time will tell.